Many sparkling-wine producers appreciate that sparkling wine draws the attention of wine writers once a year, but they regret that almost invariably it is in December, when robust sales already are assured by the approach of family reunions, festive soirees and numerous holidays, especially New Year’s Eve.
What’s more, this timing flies in the face of a message that sparkling-wine producers have been trying to sell for years, that bubbles aren’t just for special occasions. The official line goes something like this: “Use sparkling wine to make any occasion special; don’t save it for occasions that would be special even without it.”
They have a point. By its fruit, build and acidity, sparkling wine is a natural to accompany all sorts of food at the table, broadly speaking.
But sparkling wine as an all-purpose beverage has more going for it than that. For one, it’s made in all sorts of styles, from bone dry to sticky sweet, from deep red to pale straw, from assertive to delicate. There are Italian sparkling wines, Spanish sparkling wines, and Australian and German, as well as American and French.
Also, for all the precision that goes into making sparkling wine, and for all the marketing acumen that has been devoted to positioning it as a luxury item, it is remarkably inexpensive, by and large.
And despite its aura of tradition and history, the sparkling-wine trade isn’t static. However subtly and slowly, sparkling wine undergoes shifts in how it is made and revealed. Whereas the grape varieties chardonnay and pinot noir continue to provide the foundation for the finest sparkling wines, including champagne, other varieties are intruding on their turf – zinfandel, viognier and syrah, among others.
The wide range with which bubbles are offered consumers became evident to me this past year as I joined several wine competitions and trade tastings. From those experiences emerged several favorites and curiosities:
For the sweet tooth
All on its own, the wine is surprisingly impressive, with streams of bubbles more vivacious than lugubrious and a fruitiness round and refreshing. Balanced if not exactly elegant, it won gold medals this year at the Los Angeles International and Long Beach Grand Cru commercial wine competitions. Serve with home-baked rhubarb pie, suggest the cards at Sutter Home.
Nevertheless, beyond the sugar is a whole lot of other things going on – enough essence of lime to render the finish tart and uplifting, a suggestion of granite, a whiff of smoke, and a steely grip. Another well-balanced and inexpensive sparkling wine that won’t enthrall sophisticates at the party but just might have them shyly asking for another pour. Also another gold-medal sparkling wine at the Long Beach Grand Cru.
But what year isn’t? Korbel Champagne Cellars might not have the elan of other California sparkling wine producers, but it does have the grapes they’d like to get their hands on. Korbel is heavily vested in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, widely and enthusiastically applauded for its pinot noir and chardonnay, the founding blocks of refined sparkling wine. What’s more, Korbel’s long tenure in the region means it owns many of those vines, which explains how it can release such fine takes at prices substantially lower than its California competitors. This year, two Korbel releases stood out when they hit my palate:
A special sparkler
Schramsberg, which in 1965 began to show that California was as capable as Champagne in producing noble sparkling wine with traditional grapes and techniques, continues to release interpretations of exceptional vitality and complexity.
Two current releases will dress up the holiday table with uncommon gracefulness and power. One is the J. Schram 2005 North Coast Reserve ($110), a chardonnay-based sparkler partially barrel fermented and aged on yeast for nearly six years, a painstaking breeding that expresses itself in unusual complexity and richness; its flavors range from the lilting (citrus and apples) to the weighty (mushrooms and nuts).
The other is the J. Schram 2005 North Coast Rose ($140), also chardonnay-based but with enough pinot noir to give it a pretty pink hue as well as suggestions of strawberries and raspberries, all backed up by a viscosity and earthiness from being aged on yeast seven years.